Who the Fuck is Rachel? Or: Take reviews with a pinch of salt

I recently spent time with a group of very talented playwrights, and one of the many running jokes that developed from our conversations is the ringing refrain: “Who the fuck is Rachel?” This said by a playwright who received a review criticizing the character of Rachel.

PLOT TWIST: There was no character named Rachel.

Point being, critics make mistakes. They’re human. There are some wonderful and knowledgable critics out there, but they have subjective opinions and likes and dislikes like anyone else. Good reviews are great for the ego, but ego is bad for making theatre. Unless you are opening a major Broadway show* and the NY Times is in, reviews aren’t that big a deal.

When I was an actor I regarded critics (and casting directors, and basically everyone) as near-omnipotent beings who must be appeased. (Mostly.**) This is nonsense, but learning how to deal with reviews is one of those things that no one ever teaches you, and regardless of how much advice you read it’s always an unexpected and surreal learning curve. A few lessons learned:

One of my plays comprised two separate plot strands. The first review I read praised plot B to the heavens as the saving grace lifting the potentially generic A plot above ordinary levels. The second review raved about plot A and complained that plot B dragged it down.

A couple of bloggers complained that a vital plot point was not explained, when it was made explicit in one line of dialogue. It’s easy to be defensive but it’s also important to consider to what extent they represent the audience. Did they zone out, or is the line just too easy to miss?

People will request comps and then not show up, or show up and not write a review. Obviously sometimes there are genuine emergencies (lovely critic who contacted me to apologise while ill – this is not aimed at you). But when you’re reliant on ticket sales to break even, an unused and unpaid-for £15 ticket for an otherwise sold-out show is a bit of a kick in the teeth.

Seeing your cast and fellow creatives praised is even better than praise for your own work.

A review that loves your writing but hates your cast or director is a peculiar form of torture.

A critic that understands that all parts of a stage production – writing, acting and directing – work in harmony with and feed from each other, is a good one.

Glowing reviews are good for showing your mum and putting on funding applications and marketing material, but not much else.

Bad reviews aren’t necessarily more helpful than good ones, but they can be.

Some critics try to be as positive as possible, some delight in being scathing. Buckets of salt required in both cases.

If a critic says something truly stupid or plain wrong, say out loud: “Who the fuck is Rachel?” We’ll get it.

Don’t sweat it.

* If you are opening a major Broadway show: congratulations and do you want to be my friend?

**A short diversion: the first play I ever acted in as an adult received a terrible, terrible review after the first performance. Not just a bad review, but a thorough evisceration of everyone involved. It was personal and it was nasty. It was on an obscure blog, but it still gutted the cast, flopping around the dressing rooms gasping for air like fish hooked from the sea. Turns out the reviewer was an actor who’d been fired from the play after the read-through. Guess whose name I still remember ten years later and will never cast?


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